Old Ideas Made New Again, pp. 4 of 10

To Dewey, information that was merely acquired and stored up did not bring understanding.  It did not bring wisdom by which he meant using knowledge toward the better living of life (Dewey, 1933/1964).

John Dewey in 1900 was trying to answer many of the same questions we wrestle with today – how should we prepare young people for today … and tomorrow?  How should schools function, he asked, in order to cultivate “responsible, creative and critical thought” which he identified as the aims of education. We are still asking how we should best prepare young people to be productive members of society. That is, how to we enable young people to think independently, to be life-long, self-directed learners, to be active contributors who can collaborate and innovate, and who are concerned citizens who want to help shape a better world.  His ideas are, surprisingly perhaps, not out of date.  Today I want to focus specifically on two main ideas:

  • Reflective thinking – which Dewey saw as best represented by the scientific method.
  • Experience – which Dewey argued was key to engagement and understanding.

Reflective Thinking

We talk a lot today about teaching for thinking, about critical thinking, and about inquiry methods. When Dewey talked about reflective thinking he spoke of intentional, deliberate control of the world around us: “It converts action that is merely appetitive, blind and impulsive into intelligent action” (Dewey, 1933/1964, p. 212).  Careful thinking is not natural; it must be deliberately trained.  He argued that children have to be taught to substitute scientific method for superstition. By that he meant that young people need to learn to examine and test ideas. Having, or finding, information is an important component of thinking. Merely possessing information does not assure the ability to think well. People, Dewey argued, have a tendency to jump to conclusions, make sweeping generalizations, or simply rely on authority. It’s not even enough to have some logical formula if students are simply applying it when they are told to. We might teach an inquiry method, for example. But if students are simply following a set of steps to accomplish a classroom or assessment task, then they may not have learned to be reflective; that is, to apply thoughtful deliberation over a range of ideas. This last idea is important. How often have we taught a series of steps to be followed, without really seeing those steps as a scaffold which would not be needed if the students, eventually, really did learn to deliberate? Dewey was as concerned with developing an attitude of reflection as he was with developing the methods or skills of reflection. Indeed, Dewey argued that there was no single way of thinking; although he did discuss the scientific method as one important way to think about thinking.

Dewey’s description of a reflective attitude is not unlike what we might say today. He described the reflective attitude with three characteristics: open-mindedness, whole heartedness and responsibility (Dewey, 1933/1964). Open-mindedness refers, of course, to openness to new ideas and questions, a willingness to listen to diverse viewpoints, and the ability to recognize the possibility of error. “The path of least resistance,” he wrote, “is a mental rut already made” (Dewey, 1933/1964, p. 224).  Whole-heartedness refers to focus and enthusiasm. Who of us has not taught learners whose minds were elsewhere or whose attention was divided? And in this era of multi-tasking, focus is certainly a challenge. Dewey challenges teachers to engage learners.  I’ll say more about this later in a discussion of his ideas about “experience.” Finally, he spoke of responsibility.  To be reflective does not mean to live in the castle of your mind. To be reflective is to be aware of consequences and to act with integrity.  I’m reminded of Howard Gardner who argued in his essay on the Five Minds for the Future that one of the “five minds” is the ethical mind (Gardner, 2008). It is not enough to know one’s responsibilities, but one must act on them as well. Part of being reflective is learning to consider consequences and act on those responsibly.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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